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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Liberty of Conscience in Rhode Island

By John Callender (1706–1748)

[Born in Boston, Mass., 1706. Minister at Newport, R. I. Died, 1748. An Historical Discourse. 1739.]

IT is a pity we cannot entirely confute all the opprobrious things which some have written of some of the inhabitants. I am satisfied a great many of them were wholly groundless, many others very much aggravated and misrepresented, and some things made to be reproaches which in reality were praiseworthy.

I take it to have been no dishonor to the colony, that Christians of every denomination were suffered to lead quiet and peaceable lives, without any fines or punishments for their speculative opinions, or for using those external forms of worship they believed God had appointed, and would accept. Bigots may call this confusion and disorder, and it may be so, according to their poor worldly notions of religion and the kingdom of Christ. But the pretended order of human authority assuming the place and prerogatives of Jesus Christ, and trampling on the consciences of his subjects, is, as Mr. R. Williams most justly calls it, “monstrous disorder.”

Though it be very certain, that a public worship of God is very necessary, even to civilize mankind, who would be likely to lose all sense of religion without it; yet it will not follow, that the civil magistrate, as such, has authority to appoint the rites of worship, and constrain all his subjects to use them, much less to punish them for using any other. What has been forever the consequences of his pretending to such authority, and using his power to support it? What glory doth it bring to God, and what good can it do to men, to force them to attend a worship they disapprove? It can only make them hypocrites, and God abhors such worshippers.

Notwithstanding our constitution left every one to his own liberty, and his conscience; and notwithstanding the variety of opinions that were entertained, and notwithstanding some may have contracted too great an indifference to any social worship, yet I am well assured there scarce ever was a time, the hundred years past, in which there was not a weekly public worship of God, attended by Christians, on this island and in the other first towns of the colony.

It is no ways unlikely, some odd and whimsical opinions may have been broached; the liberty enjoined here would tempt persons distressed for their opinions in the neighboring governments, to retire to this colony as an asylum. It is no ways unlikely, that some persons of a very different genius and spirit from the first settlers, might intrude themselves, and use this liberty as an occasion to the flesh; but the first set of men who came here, were a pious generation, men of virtue and godliness, notwithstanding their tincture of enthusiasm, which was not peculiar to them, and notwithstanding their peculiar opinions of justification, and the nature and rights of the Christian church. They had not so many great and wise men among them, perhaps, as were in some of the other colonies; but their whole number was very small, in comparison with the other colonies. Nevertheless, they had some very considerable men, and of superior merit. It is true, likewise, their form of government was too feeble; their first Patent left them without sufficient authority in their civil officers, to check any popular humors; but yet, they did, and that as early as the Massachusetts colony, form a body of good laws, by which all vice, and every immorality, was discouraged or punished. And throughout the whole history of the island and colony, there is manifestly an aim and endeavor to prevent or suppress all disorders and immoralities, and to promote universal peace, virtue, godliness, and charity….

It must be a mean, contracted way of thinking, to confine the favor of God and the power of godliness to one set of speculative opinions, or any particular external forms of worship. How hard must it be, to imagine all other Christians but ourselves must be formal and hypocritical, and destitute of the grace of God, because their education or capacity differs from ours, or that God has given them more or less light than to us, though we cannot deny, they give the proper evidence of their fearing God, by their working righteousness; and show their love to him, by keeping what they understand He has commanded; and though their faith in Christ Jesus purifies their hearts, and works by love, and overcomes the world, it would be hard to show why liberty of conscience, mutual forbearance and good will, why brotherly kindness and charity, is not as good a centre of unity, as a constrained uniformity in external ceremonies, or a forced subscription to ambiguous articles. Experience has dearly convinced the world, that unanimity in judgment and affection cannot be secured by penal laws. Who can tell why the unity of the spirit in the bonds of peace, is not enough for Christians to aim at? And who can assign a reason why they may not love one another, though abounding in their own several senses? And why, if they live in peace, the God of love and peace may not be with them?

Indulgence to tender consciences might be a reproach to the colony an hundred years ago, but a better way of thinking prevails in the Protestant part of the Christian church at present. It is now a glory to the colony, to have avowed such sentiments so long ago, while blindness in this article happened in other places, and to have led the way as an example to others, and to have first put the theory into practice.

Liberty of conscience is more fully established and enjoyed now, in the other New-English colonies; and our mother kingdom grants a legal toleration to all peaceable and conscientious dissenters from the parliamentary establishment. Greater light breaking into the world and the church, and especially all parties by turns experiencing and complaining aloud of the hardships of constraint, they are come to allow as reasonable to all others, what they want and challenge for themselves. And there is no other bottom but this to rest upon, to leave others the liberty we should desire ourselves, the liberty wherewith Christ hath made them free. This is doing as we would be done by, the grand rule of justice and equity; this is leaving the government of the church to Jesus Christ, the King and head over all things, and suffering his subjects to obey and serve him.